Dostoevsky and Rebellion

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov contains perhaps the most vivid and intense description of the philosophical problem of suffering in literature. The relevant passages are in the chapters titled Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor. (They have been published separately from the novel as well.) While the whole novel is worth reading in entirety, below I am presenting an excerpt-summary of the problem of suffering in the words of Ivan Karamazov. This exercise is intended mostly for personal convenience of revisiting the text while philosophizing about this problem in future, but I hope it will also benefit those who wish to get a taste of it before (or without) reading the whole novel. The excerpt is from Rebellion.

--- Excerpt Start ---

"It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept....

I meant to speak of the suffering of mankind generally, but we had better confine ourselves to the sufferings of the children.... [The] reason why I won’t speak of grown-up people is that, besides being disgusting and unworthy of love, they have a compensation — they’ve eaten the apple and know good and evil, and they have become ‘like gods.’ They go on eating it still. But the children haven’t eaten anything, and are so far innocent.... The innocent must not suffer for another’s sins, and especially such innocents! ...

I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, ‘most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding.’... This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty — shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones!...

With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty... I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself....

I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear.

... if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension....

Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony....

It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive...

I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong."

--- Excerpt End ---

Most modern readers of Dostoevsky, or at least the one's I have encountered, are more influenced by this elucidation of the problem of evil than by Dostoevsky's answer to it. In fact, many don't even realize that Dostoevsky did, in fact, offer a solution! This solution, however, was not intellectual, but of a psycho-spiritual nature, which is embedded in the very plot of the novel. This makes it difficult to grasp and even more difficult to express intellectually. 

Dostoevsky was a theist, but a person capable of giving voice to such a rebellion, and whose 'hosannah has passed through a great furnace of doubt', can be no ordinary theist. Dostoevsky himself writes in his notebook about being mocked for his faith in God (by people, I imagine, not very different from the New Atheists of today!):

"Those villains have mocked me for an uneducated and retrograde faith in God. Those blockheads have never even conceived so powerful a rejection of God as exists in the Inquisitor and the preceding chapter to which the whole book will serve as an answer. After all, I do not believe in God like a fool (a fanatic). And they wanted to teach me, and mocked my backwardness! Their stupid sort never even conceived a rejection as powerful as the one I overcame. And they are going to teach me!"

Dostoevsky was quite proud of what he had accomplished in Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor: "In all Europe, there have been no expressions of atheism, past or present, as powerful as mine." And he acknowledged at the same time that the argument is intellectually irrefutable. The refutation he offers is of a different nature. In a letter to the head of Russian church, Dostoevsky himself was concerned whether the refutation will be successful:

"Will it be adequate as a refutation? Especially as the answer is not direct, not a point-by-point refutation of what had been said previously in 'The Grand Inquisitor' and before, but only indirectly... so to say, in an artistic picture."

Was Dostoevsky successful in his refutation? I suspect I cannot do justice to it even if I do grasp it. A curious reader should be driven to read the novel to find out. I can, however, offer one remark for now: It is ironical that a man driven to rebel against God out of love for humanity should end up proclaiming that everything is permitted.

Comments